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Co-Opting Spiritual Leaders For Political Advantage

Co-Opting Spiritual Leaders For Political Advantage

Newspapers on May 10 reported that the government of India has decided to provide Z category security cover to Kerala spiritual leader, Mata Amritanandamayi. An intelligence bureau assessment noted that the spiritual leader faces threat from “external forces”. The security agencies have not elaborated on the threat from the “external sources”. Officials said that a team of 40 specially trained CRPF commandos would ensure the safety of the leader, popularly known as Amma, at her ashram in the Kollam district of Kerala. As part of the cover, the commandos will provide proximate security to the spiritual leader, who will also have two escort vehicles in her convoy when she travels.

The BJP government has already given Z category security cover to the yoga guru turned business man, Baba Ram Dev. Mata Amirtanandamayi is the second spiritual leader who is given this VVIP security cover. Commenting on the decision of the government, The Indian Express reported that the BJP has been making overtures to Amritanandamayi as part of its efforts to form a rainbow coalition of Hindu unity to defeat the Left in the state. Last year, BJP chief Amit Shah attended Amritanandamayi’s birthday celebrations at the Kollam mutt, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tribute to her in a speech, the  report said. 

Political motive of the BJP government at the centre cannot be ruled out in offering Z category security to Mata Amritanandamayi. The devotees of Mata Amirtanandamayi include people belonging to different religions. The former Defence Minister A K Antony used to visit her and get her blessings. Although Mata Amirtanandamayi is a Hindu, she has not presented herself as a sectarian religious leader, but a mother whose blessings are available to all people irrespective of caste and religion. It appears that the BJP in its desperate attempt to get a foothold in Kerala politics is trying to co-opt her as a Hindutva icon and use her for polarizing the people of Kerala. Mata Amirtanandamayi, being a genuine spiritual leader, should reject the offer of the government and publically declare that her faith is in God and millions of her devotees rather than in the security forces provided by the government. She should not allow herself to be co-opted and exploited by a political party for creating its vote bank.

One can easily understand why Baba Ramdev was given Z security cover. It was more of a reward than his security needs. Baba Ram Dev openly campaigned for BJP and P M Narendra Modi during the Lok Sabha election 2014. BJP president Amit Shah has publicly thanked the yoga guru for his sustained campaign, which “contributed significantly to the formation of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.” Naturally the Modi government rewarded him richly by offering Z security and many other benefits.

Nearly a year after he was given Z-category security, the Centre granted paramilitary security cover to his yoga ashram and food park in Haridwar. The Union government deployed 35 armed CISF personnel at Patanjali Food and Herbal Park Private Limited in Haridwar. The Modi government has given a big push to the Patanjali products manufactured by Ramdev’s vast business establishment by ordering that these be stocked by the government-run Kendriya Bhandars. (Reference: ‘Baba Ramdev Phenomenon, From Moksha to Market’ by Kaushik Deka)

It has been a strategy of the Sangh Parivar to co-opt the national icons as the Hindutva icons. They include Bhagat Singh, Swami Vivekananda, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel etc. The Parivar has extended this strategy to the Hindu spiritual gurus who have large following. Giving favours to the spiritual gurus has been a strategy used by the BJP to get their support. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was given permission by the government to organize three days world cultural festival on the floodplains of river Yamuna. According to an expert committee appointed by National Green Tribunal (NGT) rehabilitation of Yamuna floodplains, "destroyed" due to the cultural extravaganza organized by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living (AOL), will cost Rs 13.29 crore and will take almost 10 years.

Meera Nanda in her book, “The God Market, How Globalization is Making India more Hindu” has pointed out the role played by the Hindu spiritual gurus in promoting Hindutva. “Regardless of their styles, the prominent gurus of all three types have one thing in common: their soft Hindutva. While using the language of universalism, tolerance, good health, and peace, they very clearly propagate a world view of India as a Hindu nation, Hinduism as a superior religion, and the need to make India (indeed the whole world) more Hindu. Given their underlying Hindu nationalism, it is not a surprise that the Sangh Parivar counts on them to use their charisma to bring moderate Hindus into the Hindutva camp”. 

The bounties showered on the spiritual gurus by the BJP governments both in the centre and in the states are nothing but rewards for their contribution in the promotion of Hindutva politics which culminated in BJP forming government both at the centre and in many states. Hobnobbing of the spiritual gurus with the Hindutva politics is in fact eroding their credibility as inclusive spiritual gurus.  For example Sri Sri Ravishankar’s spat with the NGT on the damage caused to environment due to organizing world cultural festival on the floodplains of Yamuna has not gone down well with the general public. The British magazine  The Economist described his politics in these words: ‘Art of Living is open to people of all faiths. But, in fact, discussing the Ram temple, its guru starts to sound less like a spiritual leader and more like a politician, talking of the long history of “appeasement of the minority community”, and of the unfairness of a system that subsidizes Muslims to go on the hajj to Mecca.’

The strategy that has been adopted by BJP is mixing religion, politics and business. Religion and spirituality are being used to create vote bank and polarize people and the spiritual gurus knowingly or unknowingly become tools in the hands of BJP. The spiritual gurus are benefiting in the form of Z category security, permissions even violating the rules and economic advantages. In this process the image of India as secular or pluralistic country has taken a back seat.

Three prominent qualities observed in a genuinely spiritual person are fearlessness, compassion and creativity. Jayaram V. in an article, “Divine Qualities according to Bhagavad-Gita”, writes, “A yogi on the path of liberation conquers desires and fear of death by having faith in God. Hence he is unafraid”.  The unique characteristic of a spiritual person is unshakable faith in God. Hence he or she is not afraid of anyone or any power on earth. A spiritual person’s security is not in wealth or physical power, but in God, the source of all wealth and power. Hence it appears to be a great contradiction that government is offering Z security to spiritual leaders and the spiritual leaders are accepting it with pride. Spiritual leaders often advice their followers about the need for trust in God. If they themselves accept Z security from the government at the cost of tax payer’s money their credibility as spiritual leaders will be at stake. 

The spiritual gurus of all religions should guard against being co-opted and used by political parties. If they come under the influence of a particular political party or become agents of a political party they cease to be spiritual leaders. On the other hand they become sectarian religious leaders. It is a huge loss both for them and the society.

#(Published on 22th May 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 21)